A Mountain View man who jumped into Stevens Creek in an attempt to save his dog last week said he feels lucky to be alive, and he urges the community to learn from his experience and steer clear of local waterways impacted by the storm.
Local resident Tony Pujals lives just a few minutes' walk from the Central Avenue entrance to Stevens Creek Trail, and he often takes his dog, a two-year-old black lab named Griffin, for walks along the creek. Pujals said Griffin has boundless energy, spends a lot of time outside and, more than anything, loves the water.
“Frigid water does not stop him,” Pujals said. “He’s been in frigid cold lakes like up in Lake Tahoe, and he’s been in this stream when there’s water many, many times. Stevens Creek usually doesn’t have any water, and when it does it’s never been more than a couple feet deep since I’ve lived here.”
The day before the incident, Pujals took Griffin to the creek, “and it wasn’t that bad,” he recalled.
“He jumped in, and then came back out,” Pujals said. “He does love to jump in water. But what a different story it was on Friday, oh my gosh.”
The following day on Jan. 6, the creek was rushing much faster, and Pujals decided it wasn’t safe for Griffin to go in. Pujals kept Griffin leashed as he explored and splashed near the water on the south side of the Central Avenue trail entrance. Pujals then walked Griffin away from the creek to a dry area between the water and the trail.
“I decided to let him off leash, which I usually do in that area. It’s not on the trail, there are no people and he loves to frolic in there,” Pujals said.
That’s when things took a turn. In a matter of seconds, Griffin went from playing on dry land to angling back toward the bank.
He jumped in the water before Pujals could stop him.
“When I realized, it was all in the same instant,” Pujals said. “He goes to jump in the stream, and I’m like, ‘Griffin, no!’ I saw him in the water, and I saw the expression on his face. He was as surprised and shocked as a dog’s expression ever looks like.”
Griffin began to paddle furiously to try and get back on land, but he couldn’t escape from the stream.
“He’s being swept pretty quickly, and he’s now heading north towards the bridge,” Pujals said. “I don’t see any way to get to him running along the bank. So I just jumped in.”
Pujals said he considers himself a strong swimmer. He served in the Navy as a pilot in the 1990s, and had to go through intensive swim training, including swimming a mile in full flight gear. But as soon as he hit the water, Pujals said he quickly realized he made the wrong choice: the water was much colder and more powerful than he expected.
“Mistake number one was letting him off leash, especially knowing that he loves water,” Pujals said. “Mistake number two was jumping in after him. I recognize that.”
But in the moment, all Pujals could think about was his beloved dog. As both he and Griffin pulled further away and crossed under the bridge, Pujals said the water got more violent.
“It’s churning really bad and there was no way to catch a breath. I think for the next few hundred feet, I probably only got a couple of breaths,” Pujals remembers. “I spent most of my time underwater and getting beaten up by everything I was hitting.”
At one point, Pujals was sucked underwater for so long that he remembers thinking, “I can’t hold my breath any longer.” For a few split seconds, he wondered whether he’d make it out alive, and if his family would be OK without him. But moments later, he reached a calmer section of creek and managed to grab onto an underwater barrier made of concrete-reinforced sandbags.
“I was able to climb up. Even though they were submerged, I was able to get on top of them and crawl along them, keeping my head above water,” Pujals said. “I can’t see Griffin, I am completely out of gas. When I got on top, I actually just rested for a few seconds, trying to get my breath.”
Pujals was able to crawl his way to the bank and call for help. When he reached land, there were a number of people there waiting to help, and Mountain View first responders were already starting to arrive on scene.
Mountain View Fire Department Public Information Officer Bob Maitland told the Voice that the department received a 911 call reporting a man yelling for help at the creek around 11:37 a.m. on Jan. 6. Both fire and police units were dispatched at 11:38 a.m., and arrived on scene at 11:41 a.m.
“I saw all these concerned people,” Pujals said. “I walk up the hill to the trail, and of course they’re asking me if I’m OK, they want to assess me right away, evaluate the extent of injuries.”
But all Pujals could think about was his dog.
“I’m like, ‘Griffin. Has anybody seen my dog? We need to go find him,’” Pujals recounted with emotion in his voice. “All I wanted to do was go find Griffin.”
As first responders walked Pujals toward the fire truck, they told him that someone spotted Griffin further downstream. The dog managed to pull himself out of the water onto the bank. He was going to be OK.
“I can’t even express the feeling I had at that point. I go back to the fire truck, they assess me,” Pujals said. “I’m fine, and within like 10 minutes the police had come back with Griffin.”
Pujals said as soon as Griffin spotted his owner, he lit up, and came bounding over to jump into Pujals’ arms. In the days since the incident, Pujals said he and his family have spoiled Griffin with his favorite foods and activities. Despite the traumatic event, Griffin remains his usual loving and endlessly energetic self.
Other than some minor cuts, scrapes and bruises, “personally, I’m fine,” Pujals said of how he's been holding up since the incident. “The trauma for me was seeing something I love floating away from me, and I couldn’t rescue him.”
While any pet owner would have the same instinct to jump in after their beloved pet, Maitland from the Fire Department said the best thing to do in this type of emergency situation is call 911, and then follow the "Reach, Throw, Row, Don't Go!" method established by the U.S. Army. The protocol suggests a few lifesaving measures people can take from land to try and reach the struggling individual.
"Don't go into the water unless you are trained. Call out for help," the Army method states. "Remember, even a strong swimmer can drown trying to help others."
Pujals said he’s grateful for a happy ending to what could have been a very tragic story, and to all the first responders and residents who were there to help him.
He hopes that by sharing the story of what happened, it will serve as a reminder to others to “respect the power of the stream, the creek, the floodwaters,” Pujals said. “It’s amazing how forceful it is.”
On a personal level, Pujals said the ordeal reminded him to be grateful for every moment.
“All the advice that people say, ‘Don’t sweat the small stuff,’ or ‘Never be angry when your husband or wife goes to work,’ I think about that now,” he said. “It’s like, boy, relish every moment. Life is good, but it can be so tenuous in an emergency. Just appreciate what you have.”